Here was the most improbable moment on the way to the most improbable Game 7 in NBA playoff history. Late Friday night, late in a series that should've been long over, late in the career of too many stars, Doc Rivers talked to his Boston Celtics the way that you would've expected Mike Woodson to be talking to his fuzzy-cheeked Atlanta Hawks.
"Slow down," the Celtics coach confessed to saying.
How about that?
Here comes a Game 7 for the Celtics that no one saw coming, basketball's best team with 66 victories, a steamroll season, and still they are unable to shake the go-go Hawks. A No. 8 seed, a someone-had-to-make-the-Eastern Conference-playoffs afterthought with a losing record, a losing history, and they were standing with 20,000 delirious and stunned fans in Philips Arena chanting, "Seven … Seven … Seven," on Friday night.
Game 7, Sunday at the Boston Garden.
The Hawks did it to the Celtics again, 103-100 in Game 6, and make no mistake: The greatest upset in NBA history is within reach for the Atlanta Hawks.
So together, the Hawks and a stunned sellout chanted, "Seven … Seven … Seven," on Saturday night in Atlanta, a city suddenly smitten with these Hawks that they ignored for so long. Around America, there's one thing basketball fans forever have been able to rally around: beating the Boston Celtics.
From Red Auerbach and Bill Russell, from Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, one thing never changes: The sweetest sight in enemy basketball territory is the Celtics fighting for dear life.
"All those doubters, they've never played a lick of basketball in their lives," Hawks coach Mike Woodson sniffed.
His defiance is understandable, but who is Woodson kidding? Belief was universal that the 37-45 Hawks were destined for destruction. For now, this is the eve of an NBA apocalypse. Commissioner David Stern has endured one Finals bust after another, but the prospects of preserving a collision course for the top-seeded Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers could inspire him to throw on a striped shirt Sunday and come down to the Garden floor himself.
In every way, the odds still are wildly stacked against Atlanta. Yes, there have been No. 8 seeds beating No. 1 seeds. Nothing like this, though. Nothing close. The Dallas Mavericks won 67 games a season ago, but everyone could see those eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors coming for them. The Warriors had been transformed with a midseason trade, destroyed the Mavericks in the regular season and forced Mavs coach Avery Johnson to make panicked lineup changes before Game 1.
As much as anything, these Hawks have shredded the aura that has surrounded the Celtics in the East. Once they returned to Atlanta, it was clear that the Hawks realized that the Celtics couldn't run with them. Kevin Garnett has been talking a lot on the floor, desperate to intimidate these young Hawks, but it hasn't worked. He has to wait for Josh Smith to a make a mistake out of immaturity – a bad pass, an ill-advised shot, whatever – but Garnett has struggled to keep Smith between him the basket.
For Garnett, Game 7 is a referendum on a season of genius, impassioned leadership. Pierce and Allen are on the line, too. Rivers would never live a loss down. All together, they're on the clock now. Deep down, they understand that they're within 48 minutes from the biggest choke the sport ever has seen.
To watch the Celtics away from home against Atlanta has been to believe that the 66 victories never happened, that the defensive dominance and the pounding of Western Conference powers was merely a mirage. Suddenly, the Celtics have lost so much certainty, so much composure. For the first time, there's adversity in this historic season.
The Hawks have been pounded three times in Boston in this series, and they're probably marching into a fourth on Sunday. Nevertheless, Woodson confessed, "I'm anxious to get back to Boston and see what we're made of."
After all, all the pressure goes to the Celtics now. The longer the Hawks hang on Sunday, the tighter the Celtics will get. The Hawks should be long gone in these playoffs, but they're on the way to Boston for the most improbable Game 7 the NBA ever has seen.
This was supposed to be the Celtics' season, but you heard Doc Rivers, didn't you?
Out of nowhere, out of Atlanta's wildest dreams, out of the commissioner's worst nightmare, the Boston Celtics are on the cusp of catastrophe.
- Mike Woodson